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The only real winner is the Liberal Party – but it's a poor win.

The winners and losers of the South Australian election

Malcolm Mackerras
2 May 2018

At 11am, Adelaide time, on Monday 23 April, the button was pressed to complete the South Australian Legislative Council election for which polling day had been Saturday 17 March. I can now finish my analysis of the entire election which, for this website, means a statement of winners and losers. 

The only winner is the Liberal Party – but it is a poor win. There was something very peculiar about its win. It is extremely rare for an Opposition party to take government at an election when the swing in votes is against it. Consequently the Liberal Party’s win should be attributed to something in its history, rather than in its present popularity.

Back in the nineteen forties, fifties and sixties there was a huge rural bias in the SA electoral boundaries. That bias kept the Liberal Party’s Sir Thomas Playford as premier for a record 26 years, from November 1938 to March 1965. Labor’s Don Dunstan, however, won government in 1965 and, aided by a brief Liberal government under Steele Hall (1968 to 1970) went on a crusade for “one vote, one value” electoral redistributions. 

That electoral reform was completed by Dunstan who was premier from 1965 to 1968 and again from 1970 to 1979. Two changes of government after Dunstan left office, however, produced a situation whereby, in 1989, the Liberal Party won the popular two-party preferred vote 52-48 without coming close to winning office. 

From 1985 to 1993 the SA Liberal Party had an unusually smart state director, Nick Minchin, later a senator and senior minister in the Howard government. He realised that, although the Liberal Party had lost the 1989 election, its bargaining position was by no means hopeless. During the year 1990, therefore, Minchin worked on a plan which finally bore fruit in 2018! The immediate effect of the plan was that in February 1991 the SA people voted at a referendum for a scheme of fair electoral boundaries. 

However, for reasons which are not worth going into, it did not quite work out that way in the medium term. At the 2002, 2010 and 2014 elections the Liberal Party won a majority of the two-party preferred vote but Labor won the election. In any event the December 2016 redistribution finally did the trick for the Liberal Party. It meant that the Liberal Party’s majority of the two-party preferred vote in 2018 gave the Liberals 25 of the 47 seats in the House of Assembly. The Labor share of the two-party preferred vote rose from 47 per cent to 48.1 per cent but Labor went out of office. 

In primary votes the performance of the two big parties was especially dismal. The Liberal Party’s share of the Assembly first preference vote fell from 44.8 per cent in 2014 to 38 per cent this time, a drop of 6.8 per cent. Labor’s fell from 35.8 to 32.8, a drop of only three percentage points. The essential reason for these falls was that Nick Xenophon’s SA Best party was able to garner 14 per cent of the vote. 

There are three losers at this election. Labor is the first, as explained above. However, this was a very respectable loss. It was brought about almost entirely by the 2016 redistribution but also because the Liberal Party had (at last) learnt that in a system of single member electoral districts successful targeting of marginal seats is nearly as important for a party as winning a good share of the overall vote.

On election night the obvious loser was Xenophon. His party was able to get 14 per cent of the vote but that is of no use unless it translates into seats. In the proportional representation system for the Legislative Council it gave SA Best the predictable two seats out of eleven at an election for half the Council. Xenophon himself could have been elected to the Assembly but he blew it. He contested the wrong seat, leaving an inconspicuous candidate to contest the only seat Xenophon could have won, Heysen in the Adelaide Hills. 

The other big loser was not advertised greatly on election night, Cory Bernardi and his Australian Conservatives. When he defected from the Liberals he brought with him two Family First members of the Legislative Council, Dennis Hood (elected in 2014) and Robert Brokenshire, elected for Family First in 2010 and standing again as a Conservative in 2018. Brokenshire was defeated this time around and Hood joined the Liberal Party soon after polling day. 

The disaster for Xenophon was widely noted but actually it was not nearly as great as that for Bernardi. Xenophon’s vote was good enough that he could well be elected again to the Senate in 2019. Bernardi is finished. He sits in a Senate seat given to him by the Liberal Party. When he next contests that seat as a Conservative (in 2022) he is sure to be defeated. 

Finally, The Greens did not perform well but at least they did not perform badly. They were able to secure the re-election of Tammy Franks to the Legislative Council. Consequently in the coming term there will be nine Liberals in the upper house, eight Labor, two Greens, two SA Best and one independent who was elected in 2014 as a Xenophon supporter but broke with Xenophon during the last term.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University. malcolm.mackerras@acu.edu.au)

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